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Small New York Town Becomes Home to World's Largest Contemporary Art Museum - 2003-05-30


New York State's Hudson River Valley was once bustling with harbor activity and Industrial Age factories. It is now peppered with quaint, residential communities, antique stores, and quiet cafes. For one of those communities, however, life is changing rapidly. Beacon, New York, a small, riverside town, is suddenly home to the largest contemporary art museum in the world.

Sixteen-thousand people live in Beacon, New York, 100 kilometers north of New York City. There are no hotels, or even a bed and breakfast. Local people think of it as a village.

But an institution of New York City sized proportions now calls this village home. Dia Beacon is a 30,000 square-meter art gallery boasting a permanent collection of some of the most important artists of the 20th century, European and American Pop-artists, including Andy Warhol and Walter DeMaria.

Beacon's Mayor Clare Lou Gould says the enormous facility, once a box-printing factory, is attracting countless visitors and new residents to her town. "We have had people come to city council meetings and say they have moved up because Dia Beacon was coming. There is always a tendency to follow the arts. It has happened here and in other places. We are not that far from New York City," he says.

The art in Dia certainly calls to mind New York City's artistic sensibility. A giant room lined with 72 of Andy Warhol's colorful Shadows series. The factory's former train depot, crowded with Richard Serra's mammoth, seven-meter high Torqued Ellipses. Another huge room littered with John Chamberlain's towering sculptures made of twisted car wreckage.

Dia Beacon's director, Michael Govan, says the museum's location is important, and that it could mark the beginning of the end of big city monopolies on arts and culture in the United States. "Going outside of the city to see major monuments of any kind is more of a European phenomenon where, to see a major abbey or an artwork or a chapel is a common experience. In this country, it is not so common. We tend to have our urban centers, and then our suburban sprawl," he says. "But that is changing. Our urban centers are too densely packed. Artists can no longer afford to live in places like New York City. And so, as that movement changes, I think what you are going to see is new, smaller centers."

Media reports of skyrocketing real estate prices in Beacon have accompanied the arrival of the Dia Museum.

Mayor Gould says that the reports are somewhat exaggerated. "I do not know if skyrocketing is the appropriate term. Certainly, real estate values are increasing," he says. "But they had been low in comparison with a lot of the neighboring communities."

The Dia Museum is not the only thing generating a media buzz about Beacon, New York. A multi-million dollar institute dedicated to the study of river life is being built there on a 26 hectare waterfront site, currently home to another abandoned factory.

The Rivers and Estuaries Center on the Hudson's John Cronin says Beacon was the center's first choice because of its historically close relationship with the Hudson River. The center is going to lend Beacon the opportunity to re-orient itself towards the river through the establishment of a working waterfront again, which Beacon has not seen in decades," he says. "We will have research vessels and human-powered craft and motor vessels. People will be able to participate in education and research activities that go out on the water. There is a very different level of vitality that the center is going to bring, to add to what the Dia Beacon and redevelopment of the Beacon waterfront is going to bring as well."

One might expect the citizens of a small town to react negatively to so much change, so fast. But Mayor Gould says the people of Beacon are, for the most part, embracing the new institutions. "There will always be some who do not, that is a given. But largely, because there has been, throughout the years, so much adaptive re-use of the old buildings, they are receptive to change. And we have, when I say diversity, I really do mean a wonderful, not just ethnic and racial diversity and age and income diversity; 44 different countries are represented here," he says. "People are used to other people."

Beacon is not the only Hudson Valley town facing revitalization. Both the Dia Beacon Museum and the Rivers and Estuaries Center are part of New York Governor George Pataki's efforts to revive recreation and commerce along the entire length of the Hudson River.